16 September 2008

Could Fantasy Be Presented on the Screen?

At The Edge of the American West, Ben Alpers has guest-posted an interesting and wide-ranging essay about the economics and politics of The Wizard of Oz. Not L. Frank Baum's book but the MGM movie of 1939.

Alpers writes:

On August 13, a few days before the film’s much anticipated premiere, a long, Freud-inflected meditation on fantasy, myth, and the movies penned by Wizard of Oz producer Mervyn LeRoy appeared in the New York Times. LeRoy’s article presented itself as a kind of apology for fantasy filmmaking, acknowledging how unusual The Wizard of Oz was for Hollywood, but arguing that the film stood in a great tradition going back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the films of Georges Méliès.

The Wizard of Oz (M. G. M.) should settle an old Hollywood controversy,” began Time magazine’s August 21, 1939 review of the film, “whether fantasy can be presented on the screen as successfully with human actors as with cartoons. It can. As long as The Wizard of Oz sticks to whimsey and magic, it floats in the same rare atmosphere of enchantment that distinguished Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Looking back, it's hard to grasp how risky The Wizard of Oz was, both financially and artistically. Aside from Disney and Universal's horror movies, Hollywood hadn't done fantasy well. Studios poured a lot of money into star-studded vehicles like Alice in Wonderland (Paramount, 1933) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (Warner Bros, 1935), and the results were leaden.

Even after The Wizard of Oz, Hollywood high fantasy leaned toward overloaded failures like The Blue Bird (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1940). But Hollywood had succeeded at the task of presenting fantasy on screen; now its artists needed to figure out how.

The poster above is from the Smithsonian's page of Wizard of Oz-related Treasures of American History.

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